As a youngster, Chris La Tray ran around the fields and small forest near his home pretending he was half wild animal, half person.
"I had those little plastic vampire teeth that you get on Halloween," La Tray said.
The idea of being a superhero in the woods, charging around with big dogs, came from seeing "The Island of Dr. Moreau" at the movie theater in Missoula. La Tray had no friends near his home, so he often wandered around outdoors by himself.
"You spend a lot of time in nature, and I think it's almost impossible not to become reflective and contemplative," La Tray said.
This month, Riverfeet Press releases La Tray's "One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large." The book began as the author's exercise to craft one sentence each day in his Field Notes journal.
In the book, he ties those sentences together into poems connected by the seasons, and he writes about owls and eagles and the light of the moon.
all the fanfare,
but I live for
on the river,
mist rising in clouds
from its surface,
He writes about the shuttered mill where his dad worked, running out of propane on a cold Christmas Day, and the absurd longing for a Waffle House.
Mostly, though, La Tray tells vivid stories from wild places close to home. He watches a garter snake slowly swallow a fish in Rattlesnake Creek, a donkey roil in dust in the heat of summer.
On a hot morning a donkey rolls in the dirt,
four legs flailing in the air, back and butt
scrunching and squirming against the ground,
a thick cloud of dust catching rays of sunlight
as it smokes into the air.
People like to share epic vistas from faraway places on social media, he said, but wild places don't have to be barely accessible to nourish.
"There's nature between the cracks of our lives that are easily overlooked," La Tray said.
La Tray creates
He's the resident photographer at Betty's Divine, a clothing boutique on the Hip Strip. He's a bassist and vocalist with American Falcon. And he's a writer who won a reading award at his eighth-grade graduation. His teacher gave him an empty journal and wrote him a note to start writing his first fantasy novel.
"I never went to school, never been taught writing. I read a lot," La Tray said. "I think the best way to learn to write is to read a lot."
Jim Harrison is his favorite writer, and he names "Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry," by Harrison and former national poet laureate, Ted Kooser, as one inspiration for his collection of observations.
After high school, La Tray and his buddies moved to Seattle to become rock stars. Eventually, he returned home to Montana, and he pulled the plug on a career in manufacturing in order to write. He liked the company he consulted for but found himself ethically opposed to its clients, like the one working in the Alberta tar sands.
"I gave them basically a year's notice and took a 95 percent — at least — pay cut to just strike out on my own," La Tray said.
Since then, he's been freelancing as a writer and photographer and working part time at Fact and Fiction bookstore. He earns a fraction of the money he used to make, but his lifestyle isn't much different, and he figures it's because he may have used money to fill holes of unhappiness.
The paychecks that come in the mail are smaller now, but they're for a craft he loves.
"The thrill I get from that is so much greater," La Tray said.
He still misses the travel, but he's making up for it.
"I get itchy feet. I miss getting up and going places. But I've done a better job of just running around Montana, which is kind of cool," La Tray said.
Truth lies at the heart
La Tray didn't intend from the beginning to build a book from his one sentences. But a couple of years ago, he got to know Daniel Rice of Riverfeet Press through the Beargrass Writing Retreat. On its website, the Livingston press notes it lets creative control stay in the hands of authors, and La Tray liked the books coming out of the small publishing house.
"I said, 'I'd like to be part of what you're doing. I think what I do would reflect well on what you're doing,'" La Tray said.
"It was barely more than a handshake deal, and that's the type of people I want to work with," La Tray said.
The writer has heard about the way major publishing houses shape stories to their own ends, even wanting to cut out work by Denis Johnson that was "signature Denis Johnson." La Tray isn't interested in twisting his own words to get by New York gatekeepers.
"They're just games at my gray-bearded old age I just do not care to play," he said.
That disdain for the inauthentic experience and corporate plots comes through in the book, but so does his ability to laugh at himself. In his essay about running out of propane, he rails at the way the commodity is traded, pushing up prices in the winter when modest families can least afford the higher cost.
"It's another nefarious scheme perpetrated by The Man to keep common folk down," La Tray writes.
Then in a poem, La Tray mocks himself.
I woke up to the earliest light of day
spilling across the field outside my window,
the dogs snoring in a semi-circle around the bed,
a soft, warm female under the same sheet as me,
a cool breeze from the ceiling fan above me
caressing my face, and still, STILL,
my first conscious thought was,
"I wish this town had a Waffle House."
Mark Gibbons, a poet and friend of La Tray, said truth lies at the heart of the author's writing, and that's the reason it speaks to readers.
"It's just flat-out honest, and the fact that he is obviously willing and generous with his own self deprecation, the awareness that he is as fallible as any other human being and desperately flawed, that sort of gives him the right to point out these other rather disturbing flaws that exist around him," Gibbons said, especially the ones that affect the powerless.
Gibbons knew he would like the fellow writer the moment he read some of his work, he said. La Tray's poems and essays are comfortable and filled with empathy, an extension of who the author himself is as a person. And unlike some of La Tray's other work about specific subjects, this collection is about him.
"This book is sort of a first look at what goes on in the mind and heart of Chris La Tray on his own," Gibbons said.
Works in progress
La Tray is working on a couple of novels, and he's also writing a memoir about being an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. His wife, Julia La Tray, is a clothing designer and founder of the DonkeyGirl line of clothing. They pull each other through periodic bouts of "impostor syndrome."
"We definitely feed off each other and inspire each other," La Tray said.
The writer dedicates this book "to those who have gone before:" his father, Sidney Robert La Tray, and "The Pack," including Darla the Adventure Dog. The collection includes a beautiful essay about walking Darla and the gifts our animal friends give us.
"I think people who are introspective and feel like sometimes, the day to day world is running away from them, that maybe, they might like it," La Tray said of the collection. " … My dad, who wasn't a reader at all, he really enjoyed back when I was posting (the pieces) online before he passed away. That to me meant a lot."